©Bert Gildart: Montana Public TV aired its “Night of the Grizzlies” documentary May 17 and if nothing else the program has reunited many of us who played some part in the twin tragedies of 1967. Since that time I’ve visited by telephone with friends in various parts of the country who appeared in the documentary. We’ve rehashed the program, and we’ve reviewed the problems that brought about the fatal mauling of the two college women on that black night of August the 12th. What, we’ve all agreed upon, is that the producers did a magnificent job of tying together the times with the tragedy, recalling as they did the biology and legends of g-bears, the magnificent setting in which the maulings occurred — and even the fact that 1967 was “The summer of love.” (Remember, Brian, Daniela, and David?)
There is one fact, however, that keeps creeping in, and that is: that the probability of these two maulings occurring on the same night was infinitesimal. “A trillion to one,” some said, but that is not a figure I’m comfortable with. I think the odds were less — considerably less, and I think it important to understand the conditions and never forget, least we again create a problem situation.
GARBAGE THE PROBLEM
Here is my rationale, and it is based in part on a considerable amount of research I conducted for a major story I wrote for Smithsonian magazine about bears and bear maulings. I wrote the story in the mid 1980s after another horrible twin mauling occurred on Divide Creek, also in Glacier. In this case a young couple (Ammerman and Eberly) were camped (OK, so they were illegally camped, considering the outcome who cares ?) adjacent to the creek which was unknowingly in the path that a grizzly bear followed almost every night on its way to a garbage dump, one located just outside of the park. My research emphasized that there was little that would stop a bear intent on feeding on garbage. Highly charged electric fences didn’t work, and sadly the obstacle of two campers didn’t work either. The result was another twin tragedy.
Click to see larger image. L to R: Kintla Lake was my first ranger station; examining rogue grizzly bear and discovering glass embedded in its teeth; Bert Gildart with rogue bear shot at Trout Lake.
In the above four cases, garbage was always the problem, for it had created bears that were conditioned to easily obtainable food sources – food they’d come to associate with the smell of people. As a result, these bears had lost their fear of people, or in the words of biologists, they had become “habituated.” (Note: That’s not the way things are today! Despite a larger bear population, Glacier has fewer problems, something that should also be remembered and that I really want to emphasize!)
Though the term habituation was not familiar in 1967, bears at both Granite Park Chalet and Trout Lake were certainly habituated. They craved garbage and absolutely nothing would stand in their way.
THEY WERE DUMPING GARBAGE
Certainly this is all in retrospect and is not to imply managers at the time would have knowingly tolerated a situation that might have lethal consequences. I say that even though both David Shea and I had reported our findings to authorities at headquarters. As the “Night of the Grizzlies” retrospective brought out, one week prior to the maulings, Shea and I had hiked to Granite Park Chalet and had witnessed a horrible spectacle in which chalet personnel were dumping garbage over the balcony to lure grizzly bears in for free food. Our report was ignored but that may have been because Glacier was experiencing one of the worst fire seasons ever, and so headquarters was mostly without a nearby permanent staff, which is where authority ultimately rested.
Garbage was also present at Trout Lake and in such immense quantities that another monster situation had been created. I once found cans of honey, pancake mix, cans of tuna, rotten sandwiches — enough discarded garbage to fill 17 burlap sacks later flown out in a helicopter, and that was just for starters! In other words, here were two completely separate situations and each could have but one outcome, and that was a mauling.
If my basic assumption is ball-park correct, then statisticians should view things differently. Rather than “a trillion to one,” the odds change and are based more on the number of days during which a probable mauling might occur.
Generally, Glacier’s approximately 300 maulings (10 fatal) have occurred between the months of July and September, though there are several notable exceptions. In 1998 rangers were notified that Craig Dahl had not returned from a May 17 hike. A search was conducted and the man’s remains were found on May 20. On the other seasonal extreme, a sow and two cubs attacked and killed photographer John Petranyi on October 3, 1992, near Granite Park Chalet. No one can say with complete certainty what prompted the attacks because no one was there. But people can speculate, saying that perhaps it was photographic aggression or perhaps the hikers had a surprise encounter with the sow and her cubs. (Today, before you venture into the backcountry you are required to watch a video that informs on ways to avoid surprise encounters.)
MAULINGS WERE A GIVEN
Most of Glacier’s other maulings (some with black bears lured into cars for better photo ops), however, have occurred between July and September, and isn’t it acceptable then to focus on this three-month period, a time frame of about 90 days? Again, I want to emphasize that I believe the 1967 maulings were a given, that under the circumstances they were absolutely inevitable! If that’s the case, the probability of a mauling occurring on August 12 at Trout Lake was 1 out of 90. The same is true as well at Granite Park Chalet; there could be no other outcome!
Click to See Larger Image: Ranger Bill Hutchison examining area for grizzly bear sign and finding it in the form of tree markings; sometimes bears turn rogue, generally subsequent to being feed; Heaven’s Peak separates Granite Park Chalet and Trout Lake, the two of which are 8 linear miles apart.
Now let’s take a rule from statistics, one which says that the odds of two separate events occurring at the same time is the product of their individual probabilities, meaning that the likelihood of these two mauling occurring on the same night (say, August 12) is one in 8,100.
So there you have it, and though I don’t know how mathematically sound my statistical thoughts might be, I certainly think the odds are considerably less than a “trillion to one” or “infinitesimal,” as several seemed to think. . Still, that’s the virtue of such programs and such dialog: they start you thinking…
From a personal perspective I am delighted for the small part I was able to contribute to the program and pleased many of my images (perhaps 25) were used by director Gus Chambers. To help set the background for my thoughts I’ve included a few of those pictures (above) in this posting. My thoughts also suggest that though conditions were ripe for these two maulings, such is no longer the case.
Today, Janie and I frequently hike in Glacier without any concern that marauding bears are stalking us, for these are decidedly different times, as I noted in a recent magazine article about bears. As biologist/author Doug Chadwick, who also served as the program’s commentator, said: “We’re learning to live with bears, and I think they’re learning to live with us.”
NOTE: As a guest speaker, I’ll be showing the above photographs (and many others, too) between June 2 and June 4 at an International Airstream Rally in Jackson, Ohio. My program will also highlight Glacier, now celebrating its centennial. Unfortunately, I’ll be flying and not traveling in our RV, which I regret.
THIS TIME LAST YEAR:
*Memorial Day, On a Personal Note
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